In studying death and dying in college, I was taught that a good counselor does not use his or her own story as an aid in counseling the bereaved. In a lot of circumstances, I would agree with that. However, I feel that my journey through the darkness of grieving for my deceased baby is the tool that I need to use because it is so much like the grief of other parents that I have met over the last 30 years that are dealing with a similar loss.
Today, I came across someones comment on facebook. The author wanted people to stop talking to her like her deceased child never existed. I definitely have been in this place while dealing with the death of my child. Her loss is still as real and as new to me as it was the day I found out that my child died while in my belly. She was stillborn when I was full term in my pregnancy. I had gone through two previous miscarriages and was so excited to have gone so far in my pregnancy. I had even bought and set up the crib in the nursery. I went in their daily looking at the beautiful bed that my child would be sleeping in a matter of days.
The mother in the comment wanted someone to hear that her child is dead now, but before that he was alive and breathing and her child. She had a whole history with him even though it was cut short. For me, I would get upset when people around me had babies. It was not that they had a baby, I was happy for them. It was how they would, at first, pull the child back from me like I was going to steal their child. I did not want their child. I wanted my child, and I wanted desperately to tell them that, but I did not. Instead, I just stopped holding babies until I had my own children. To this day, I only hold my babies, including my grandbabies, not other people’s babies.
When a child dies, there are always going to be people who say and do the wrong things. People who feel that they have to say something even though they do not know what to say. To them, they are helping you. But, in reality, they are only helping themselves feel better because they needed to say something so that they felt like they did something to help you. It is okay to not know what to say, and nothing said with a big hug says more than a million misspoken words.
Mostly, I believe people are afraid to stop and hear the story of the one who died. They are above all terrified that they might have to comment on something the bereaved says while telling his or her story. Other well wishers said too much, “Just be glad that you never got to hold her in your arms.” Now that was total ignorance. I still draw air into my lungs and hold my breath for a moment whenever I think of this one. I wanted to slap that person. Instead, I turned away from her and told myself that she might be right. I only knew that I was suffering because I did not ever get to hold her. Empty arms are still empty whether the child is stillborn, died tragically, or is miscarried. People like this managed to is make my grief even harder; this too it turns out is okay. It became my personal mission to find answers.
These were not okay when my grief was new. At first, these words hurt me so bad that I wanted to scream. That scream still lives inside of me. I knew that if I screamed, I would not stop and someone would put me in an insane asylum. Which, by the way, is where I sometimes felt that I belonged. I knew that I would never be “normal” again. The absolute worst comment ever said to me was by my preacher. He prayed over me with a group of people in church and while holding his hand on my head announced that God killed my baby because I was a sinner. I felt like I was suddenly floating on a cloud. I left my body for the first time. What was that? There were echoes of “Yes Lord and Amens” all around me. What did he say? What? How? WHAT THE HELL? They agree with him? I was mad. I am still mad about this one? I thought about this long after the laying on of hands. I concluded that if God would kill an innocent baby that has never walked or even breathed air because of my sins then I didn’t want anything to do with that God. I did not return to church for about 10 years. When I did go back, it was because my children begged me to take them.
After years of working on my grief, I found a Master’s Course in Thanatology (the study of death and dying). I knew that I was meant to be in that program. I just knew that it would help me be able to help others even though there was no one to help me. These classes taught me so much more than I ever thought it would. I went from loving it, to crying during lectures, then angry that it was so personal. I wanted to help others, not myself. I was okay. I actually asked my professor how to keep the classes from becoming counseling for the students in the class. I think another woman thought that I was talking about her because she gasped when I asked the question. It was not directed to anyone but myself. I needed to draw a line between my pain and focus on helping others. It still kept coming back to me. It took me a while, but I did manage to separate myself from it even if only a little.
Over time, I did learn that it is okay for people to say the wrong things at the wrong times. It is their way of coping. They probably walked away upset that they said or did something inconsiderate. Others, probably, really felt that they really were helping. People really don’t know what to say. In reality, listening is the best thing a true friend can do to help the bereaved deal with their losses. People do tend to want the bereaved to just move on and get over it even though they know that this is not very realistic. They need to not feel uncomfortable because they do not know how to deal with grief themselves even if they have experienced it themselves.
If grief is complicated (so hard to deal with that life/living stops) then the bereaved should be referred someone who works with grief: Counselors, Funeral Home Directors, Hospice Center Counselors and, yes, even Preachers. Offer to go with him or her if that is what it takes to get them there. These Grief Specialist work with people dealing with complicated grief on a daily basis. They will not turn you away if your bereavement is one hour old or 30 years old. Some of the people in these positions may not know how to help the bereaved through a complicated grief; however, that does not mean that you cannot eventually get the right person to help you with your specific grief needs.
An example of bad counseling is the horrible prayer my preacher prayed. He did the most damage because I was taught that a preacher is an authority figure. His words were to represent God’s own thoughts and feelings. For the first time in my life, I did not trust him. I became confused. I was so young and vulnerable. Was I rejecting the words of a preacher that thought he was giving me an answer or was I rejecting God. My actual faith was shook by his words. Now, I know that it was the man at fault not God. When this happens, run as fast as you can and find a more qualified counseling source. Counselors are people too. They get things wrong just like everyone else. Remember you can choose to walk away when you feel the one trying to help you is crossing a line that hurts more than it helps. Sometimes, Counselors just are not a good match for the person seeking help.
Don’t allow others to define your grief for you. People who really love you will allow you to have breakdowns, anger, hope, depression, and, yes, they will let your tell your story. Speak your deceased loved one’s name as much as you need to do to feel peace within yourself as your parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, your lost loved one’s story are your story. This storytelling will help you and your family heal and become stronger.
Perhaps, if it is hard for you to speak your story, you can write a little blog about your experience. There will be others who will need to hear your story to help them heal from their loss.
Embrace this journey you are on, and if it means you lose some people along the way, that is okay too. If they really value you as a person, they will stand with you. If they can’t go there with you, let them know that you still love them and that you are going to be fine.
Many bereaved feel that they need to be surrounded by people who help them through both the ups and downs of in his/her grief. However, both the ones going through the loss and those that are dedicated to helping them should remember that there will be times when space is needed.
It is okay if sometimes, you will think that you are getting stronger in the grief process then, suddenly, something will happen and you will breakdown. This too is a normal part of the grief process.
Some people need to grieve in silence and/or alone. Give them room and let them know that when they are ready to talk you will be available. Write down the name of a person who is trained to help them and give it to the bereaved. They may not think or know how to find the information for themselves. Let them know that you are not judging them, that you only wish or hope that he or she could find someone to talk about their experience with. Maybe, put your name and/or the referring name and number where it can be easily seen: refrigerator or bathroom mirror. Show up or call them and make sure they know that you are there without speaking it over and over again. Let them know that their story is valuable to you. Allow them the freedom to open up their wounds and show you the ugly that remains raw and weeping as well as the scars that are beginning to form around the edges of the wound. Let them know that their story is valuable to you and that you have made the time for them to sit with you and tell it.
Still, a lot of people will continue to feel that the Counselors story is not a part of helping the bereaved or anyone’s counseling experience; however, remember that the Counselor most likely specialized in their field because they wanted to help others through shared experiences.